Ideas on activities that promote learning, with the understanding that learning is fun.
Many parents are concerned with their child's educational growth, once they get into school. In fact, the pattern of learning begins long before that. Some say even while the baby is is in the womb. There are many parents-to-be who spend time talking to their unborn offspring, playing musical selections,etc. in the belief that it will influence their child to be clever as he/she grows. While none of these can be guaranteed to produce a brighter child, once that baby is born, EVERYTHING you do can help determine that child's capacity for learning. Obviously, some children are genetically disposed to certain aspects of learning, but that is not to say that only children of super-intelligent parents can become super-intelligent themselves. Some of history's greatest educators proved that physically, mentally and socially disadvantaged children could be elevated to academic excellence.
The greatest premise to raising a brighter child is one of time - not hours on end, but quality time; segments of time spent wisely. Another is grasping the opportunity that each new day brings with it. These two factors are more important than any other. The concept of quality time is not a new one, but is one that many families take for granted, or feel unable to accomplish due to the hustle and bustle of being wage-earners. However, once the importance of this time is understood, and the amount of it is realised to be almost minimal, it becomes much easier to accomplish. Sometimes, though, one has to re-think one's attitudes to other people's opinions.
The single most important thing to remember about "teaching" your child, is that learning should be fun. When it is, a child grows up loving to learn, and the learning becomes a much easier task. Every day, there are opportunities to propound this view. Taking the time to experience all there is, each day, on a child's level, not only creates bonds between children and the teaching partner (whether parent, grandparent or teacher) but also lays the groundwork for the idea that learning about things is interesting, and a pleasurable experience. Talking to small children about things they see on the way to the shops, or to the park, helps promote their comprehension and use of language, and the formulating of ideas and opinions. It is not enough for a child merely to mimic an adult's point of view, they are to be encouraged to expound their own observations. You have only to listen to the joy and excitement in a three-year-old's voice when relating a tale of something seen or done, to realise how immensely pleasurable they find this activity. In later years, in a more formal educational setting, their comfort in speaking to others, and their belief in the validity of their own opinions, will enable them to participate more fully in group discussions, debates and public speaking.
Some parents feel awed by the responsibility for the nurturing, not only of this child's body, but of his mind as well. They may feel inadequate, and that they are not clever enough to carry out the task. They need only realise that they can learn at the same time as the child, by opening their minds to the fact that learning is not only accomplished by reading books and passing exams (although this does not intend to diminish the importance of either of those subjects). I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of reading, being very much a bookworm myself, and I have always encouraged my grandchildren, and others whose care I have been responsible for, that being able to curl up and look at a good book is a wonderful thing! I have read to babies and toddlers, pre-schoolers and older ones, sharing the fun of a good story. Many evenings, my granddaughter, then aged two and a half, would crawl up on my bed and lay next to nanny; I with my latest read, and she with one of her picture books. Reading is one of the greatest gifts you can help your child to achieve, for with it comes an escape from reality into worlds far away, or to information, or into imagination. I have always felt a deep sadness at the idea of someone being unable to read, and cannot imagine my life had I not been able to.
In this article, I hope to direct you to other resources and ideas, to help you to give your child, or children, the encouragement and experiences to be the best they can be, throughout their lives. Nothing is a "must-do-or-else", rather it is a "try-this-and-see-if-your-child-likes-it" approach. The idea is for the child to enjoy what he/she is doing. By making learning a "want-to" activity, and by fostering this attitude, they will challenge themselves to learn more. An inquisitive mind is a wonderful thing!
Not everything involved in learning will be academic, for children need much more to complete their world, and although some activities are traditionally more for one sex than another, they should be seen as life experiences. Men care for babies, so if a boy plays with a doll, use that play to instill fatherly values; if a girl is mechanically minded, let her help with the mechanics on the family car. Use the experiences as they appear. Encouragement and praise are greater promoters of excellence than expectations and criticism.
In the Beginning ...
From the moment a baby is born, they are like little sponges, absorbing all the information that comes their way, via all their senses. When you consider all that happens in the first two years of life, you begin to see just how clever these little people are. From the first day of helplessness, they go from being totally dependent on adults for all their needs to being able to crawl, walk, talk, draw, play, and (in the "terrible twos" - that sometimes start around eighteen months!)assert their own demands. We look back on those times and think "wow, it passed so quickly", and we are amazed at the changes this little person has gone through. Physically, intellectually and cognitively.
Nature has her own timetable, and most children develop within certain time frames - some slightly slower, some slighter faster, than "the norm". It must always be remembered that each child is an individual, with unique talents and abilities of their own. Some children will grow up to be book smart, others will be creative in arts and crafts, and there will be children whose genius in maths or music will set them apart from other children. Naturally, parents want their child to be the best that it can be - so is there anything that you can do to promote your child's intelligence? Some people think so, and some of the ideas are so simple you'll wonder why everyone isn't doing them. Others are slightly more controversial, yet they work - children achieving greater heights - but at the expense of what? Is rote learning wrong? How far should parents go? Are they doing it for the child, or for themselves?
So, what can you do to give your baby the best start in life? Newborns bring out the best in most of us, and we hold them and coochy-coo, and stroke their skin - all things which give comfort to the baby and begin the learning processes. He/she begins to hear language, and the tones used in the use of language. He is lulled by it, and will eventually respond to it with baby talk of his own, which will later give way to the first "real" words that we are always so proud of. Singing lullabies also exposes him to language, and the message he receives is that it is good, because he is wrapped up in this nice, warm feeling of contentment and security. As he learns to speak, himself, language becomes a way of getting responses, and of communicating his needs.
Even small babies, say about 4 - 6 months old, like to look at colourful things, which is why nurseries have long had a tradition of the mobile above the cot. Many parents now are realising that babies of this age can be shown picture books, and spoken to about what's going on in the pictures. They may not appear to be absorbing knowledge but, again, it is exposure to the spoken word, and in the comforting realm of a warm body and loving arms - whether mummy, daddy or someone else. The feeling is that it is good. Although they may not be able to communicate their absorbance, you will find that the knowledge is being stored for later. So, although it seems a rather crazy idea, talking about colours, shapes, animals, etc are in fact paving the way for your baby to know these with more ease, in the future.
They also learn by the touching and tasting options that we adults tend to find so alarming. This is just a normal part of their perception of the world around them. Everything goes into their mouth, no matter how inappropriate we may deem it. It is a good idea, at this age, to have lots of easily washable toys that they can explore in this way - hard and soft, bright and colourful, safe toys with no bits that may come off and choke little ones. Soft building blocks can be put in the washing machine, plastic blocks can be washed in a diluted sterilizing solution as can rattles, teething rings, etc. Early Learning Centre have a wonderful sensory cube with different shaped objects which "post" into the cube, and in the U.S.A. Discovery Toys have a similar cube that is soft, and contains items of different fabrics - towelling, crinkly material, shiny material. These provide hours of enjoyment and can be cleaned over and over again, and are SAFE for little ones.
We must always remember to supervise babies though, when they have these toys; sometimes it is surprising what they manage to choke on, or to insert in some orifice. Some toys are deemed "not suitable for children under" and there is a certain age noted. It is always wise to take this into account, but to remember that this is not a RULE, and that with care many children younger than the given age are able to gain pleasure from it.
Finally, when putting babies and little ones down for a nap, I have always liked to have cassette tapes of nursery rhymes or stories playing softly. They are soothing and give the little one a sense that they have not been abandoned. Dorling Kindersley have some, as do many other children's publishers.
With Three- and Four-Year-olds
They're mischievious, temperamental, questioning, rebellious, amusing, all wrapped into one. Of all the ages and stages a child passes through, I think these two years are my personal favourites. Their minds are increasingly more inquisitive, and they can assimilate information and offer it back to you with their own particular brand of insight. And what insights! We often smile as they misuse a word, putting a whole different context on what they are saying, but they also make some wonderful observations about what's going on around them, and sometimes it is more a learning experience for the adult than the child. They have a joy at seeing the newness in things that we have become so accustomed to, that we take for granted because they are always there. Looking up at the sky last night, my 4 year-old granddaughter commented on how beautiful it looked. Dark stormy grey clouds in stark contrast to the clear blue and the white marshmallow puffs, and behind all that, the sun setting. Since she was 2 we have talked about the sky as one of God's ways of showing us something beautiful. God painting beautiful pictures in the sky. This can be altered for those who do not believe in God, to their Supreme Being of choice, or Mother Nature. We often have conversations about things we see - we've watched bees buzzing in and out of flowers, and talked about gathering pollen and making honey, at the same time sympathizing with the bees for having to work so hard. We've fed the ducks, and noticed the differences between mummy and daddy ducks, and those of different ages, sang "ten little ducks went out one day" and talked about which duck swam the fastest, and which had the most ducklings. Walking to the park, we've picked leaves off bushes en-route, and compared the different hues of green, size, shape and texture.
My friends laugh at me, and say I turn everything into a learning experience. Guilty! And it's so much FUN! I love these times; I love letting little minds tick over madly and little mouths chatter with all that they are seeing and thinking. It's exciting for them, and fulfilling for me! They reason in a way that we don't. For instance - would you believe that fire sneezes? Well, when it catches hold, it goes "whoosh". What adult would have thought of something like that? Or, in the confusion of attempting to sort out family relationships, Angelica told her great-grandmother that she (my mother) was her other nanny, and that she (Angelica) was her granddaughter and she was GREAT! She knew the words "great-granddaughter" went together somehow, and worked it out that way for herself. It was rather apt in many ways.
We've built sand-castles on the beach, and waded in rock pools left by receding tides, gathered shells and then talked about their similarities and differences. We sing all sorts of songs as we travel by car, people look when we stop at traffic lights, but I'm not there to please them. I want my grandchildren to look back in later years and think - "we had a brilliant time with nanny when we were little". I want their childhood to be magical, full of happy moments, free and innocent. Children grow up so quickly these days and are so much more worldly wise; it's almost hard to be a child now, they are so much more sophisticated than we were at the same age.
So, what kind of "structured" learning activities work well with this age group? Picture Lotto is an excellent one, encouraging observation and matching - both important pre-reading skills. There are also an array of sticker books available to suit all tastes - and the important thing here is that the children are practising hand/eye co-ordination when they fit the stickers into the blank areas, so it doesn't matter if they love Barbie and you hate the plasticity of the Barbie image, or Teletubbies, or Action Man. They'll have fun and yet they'll be learning a skill at the same time, even if the actual content of the sticker book is not to your liking.
Little girls also like cutting our "dollies" from folded paper, just like we did when we were much younger. Obviously, at this age, they'll need help - maybe with each step of the process, or maybe with the preparation. By using larger sheets of paper, and folds, you can draw the dolls in a bigger size, thus enabling little hands with safety scissors to do the actual cutting. They can then colour their dolls and draw in the features.
Carol Vorderman, of "Countdown" fame, has put her name to a series of maths workbooks which go from 3-5 yrs all the way up to high-school. There are 4 books in the set for each age group, and they are available separately or discounted as a complete set. For the little ones, it's more tracing dotted lines, recognising shapes etc. What is really nice about these workbooks is that they set children up to succeed, and each page has a space for the enclosed gold stars to be placed, on completion ... and when the book is finished, there is a certificate which can be signed and presented to the child, to acknowledge the achievement. These are available from Dorling Kindersley and if you are in the U.K., please go to the DK website at www.dk.com.
An activity which caused lots of laughs among children who I babysat, and my own grandchildren, was the "Ten in the Bed" song, and we'd roll against each other on the bed, pretending to try to push each other out. Doesn't cost anything, doesn't need any special equipment, or particular talent, just time and a sense of fun. Also, the old party favourite "Statues", but allow for their age and ignore some of the wobbles! This age group loves to play "Simon Says" but if that's beyond your child's comprehension, just have them "pretend to be a ...." or "make yourself as small as you can", or other such ideas. You can adapt these for a single child also.
I am a big fan of "Kindermusik" but realise not everyone has access to a class locally, or maybe the money to pay for it. We helped my daughter pay for my granddaughter's class and it was money well spent. Teachers of "Kindermusik" usually advertise in the classifieds, or on local notice boards, and have undergone specific training and the classes themselves are a parent/child concept. So, what can you do if you are unable to let your child attend a class? Try to listen to all different sorts of music, and clap or march along to the pieces. Encourage children to "echo" a sequence of sounds. The idea is FUN, enjoy getting into it with your little ones. It has been said that music is a "whole brain" activity, and recent research is tending to back up previous studies claiming that children who are exposed to music early on (and I don't mean just the top forty on the radio!!!) are more easily able to grasp academic subjects later on.
I hope these ideas help you to fun-filled days with your children, whilst knowing you are providing them with a good foundation for all the learning that goes on throughout life.